Ironically, Bob DePretis and his wife Margaret have lost their home trying to defend their right to develop their property.
By Gale Courey Toensing
SHARON, Conn. _ A lawsuit alleging defamation and other violations has been filed against a local attorney for distributing an email accusing a neighbor of having mob connections, and outlining a way to use that accusation to generate “revulsion” against his proposed property development plan.
Property-owner Bob DePretis filed the three-count complaint against attorney Michael Lynch in Litchfield Superior Court on April 14.
The complaint is based on an email Lynch sent to at least five people, claiming among other things that DePretis has “a maufia (sic) background.”
The lawsuit charges Lynch with defamation, tortious interference with business expectancy, and a violation of Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA).
DePretis is seeking money damages for harm to his reputation, lost business and contractual relations, lost financial benefits, attorneys’ fees and costs, punitive damages, and “all other legal and equitable relief the Court deems appropriate.”
According to the complaint, Lynch sent an email on Feb. 26, 2005, to members of the Sharon Association, an organization formed specifically to fight DePretis’s development proposal.
DePretis had planned to build 28 low density, high luxury age-restricted condominiums on the 42-acre property on Jackson Hill that he and his wife Margaret owned. Margaret DePretis had inherited the property from her father 25 years earlier. The couple both lived in the home and operated a retirement home there for 20 years. Margaret DePretis had personally cared for the elders.
Completed architectural plans for the condominium proposal were before the Planning & Zoning Commission when Lynch sent his email to Karl Saliter, Thaddeus Gray, Lawrence Kurland, Ellen Sykes, Sharon Tingley, and a public relations firm that had been hired by the newly former Sharon Association and DePretis’s next door neighbor Christopher Clow to lobby against the proposed development.
“Karl and I had a stellar day collecting signatures (on a petition opposing DePretis’s project) in front of the pharmacy,” Lynch wrote in the email.
Referring to an apparent split on the P&Z Commission regarding the DePretis proposal, Lynch expressed “concern” that people might think the application was legal.
“One ground for concern is that it appears that the Manassee/Prindle (P&Z Commission members) wing of P&Z has done a very good job of spreading the word that DePretis’ application is legally sound and that they have no choice but to grant it,” Lynch wrote.
Lynch then outlined his plan to combat that perception.
“We need to overcome the impression that we are fighting a losing battle, because perception becomes reality in these matters,” Lynch wrote. “We need to devise a way of exploiting Mr. Depretis’ character in a cold, deliberate, and careful manner. Most of Sharon still does not know about his maufia (sic) background; I think that when they do, their revulsion towards this project will strengthen,” Lynch wrote.
According to the court document, “Lynch published the defamatory email with actual malice, in that he published the statement with the knowledge it was false or did so in reckless disregard of whether the statement was false or not.”
“The ‘mafia’ statement in the defamatory e-mail is false,” the lawsuit states. “DePretis did not have, currently does not have, and has never had any connection to the mafia or organized crime.”
The lawsuit says that by linking DePretis to the mafia, the e-mail constitutes defamation in and of itself and the law, therefore, presumes “the existence of an injury to DePretis’s reputation in addition to humiliation and the mental suffering which was caused by such defamation.”
As a result of the defamatory e-mail, the lawsuit says, “revulsion” toward DePretis grew, the application was denied, and DePretis suffered economic loss, including the costs of developing the applications, lost business and contractual relations, and loss of financial benefits.
In the second count against Lynch, the lawsuit alleges tortious interference with business expectancy.
“Lynch acted intentionally and maliciously, and with an improper motive in his interference with the proposed development plan, including his publication of the defamatory e-mail, thereby destroying those business and contractual relations and permanently damaging the plaintiffs,” the lawsuit says.
The third count – a violation of the Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act – alleges that Lynch engaged in unfair and/or deceptive trade practices because his acts were "deceptive, offend public policy...are immoral, unethical and/or unscrupulous, and... have a tendency to cause injury to consumers, competitors and/or other business persons, and...have caused substantial injury to the plaintiffs.”
Lynch, a Republican, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the state
legislature in 2003. He could not be reached for comment.
DePretis, a former police officer in Torrington where he achieved the rank of detective sergeant, and the owner and operator of the Northwest Detective Agency for almost 20 years, told The Corner Report that he and his wife had been active volunteers and contributors in the community for years. That’s why they were puzzled by a noticeable change in attitude toward them by the townspeople in 2005.
“We’d go into town and people that we’d known for 20 years would cross the street when they saw us coming, and wouldn’t even say hello if we ran into them somewhere. On the other hand, the people involved in fighting our project would go out of their way to be nice to us when we ran into them at the post office or grocery store. Now, after finding this email, we know why,” DePretis said.
Lynch’s email was discovered last November during depositions in a lawsuit that DePretis filed in September 2007, against the Town of Sharon and individuals Cynthia Rubicam, William J. Manasse, James DiMartino, W. Peter Reyelt, Jr., Elizabeth Hall, and Stanley McMillan, who were members or alternates on the P&Z Commission; and Robert Fish and Christopher Clow as individual residents, who opposed the DePretis project.
The high end condominium proposal had raised a storm of opposition initiated and led by Clow, Depretis’s neighbor, who had moved to Sharon two years earlier.
Clow hired a team of experts to fight the project, including a public relations firm that called local reporters and asked them to attend P&Z meetings where they were handed packages of anti-development materials. The well-organized opposition spread like a virus among a segment of the town’s mostly upper crust property owners, who packed the P&Z public hearings. The opposition succeeded in convincing the commission to amend the town’s zoning regulations to ban multiple dwellings while the DePretis application was pending, assuring that he could not resubmit the plan if the commission were to deny it.
The commission ultimately did deny the application in October, 2005, on two minor technical “pretextual” reasons, according to the first lawsuit. On the advice of the town attorney, who is not named in the lawsuit, the commission denied the application because Jackson Hill LLC, the name of the applicant on the zoning application, did not match the name Jackson Hill LLC # 2, the owner of a portion of the property on the applications.
That reason was “pretextual” because at all times Jackson Hill LLC #2 joined and consented to the applications, according to the court documents.
“In fact the reason that Jackson Hill LLC transferred said property to Jackson Hill LLC #2 was due to the suggestions by the defendants and Commission members that such transfer was necessary,” the lawsuit says.
The second reason concerned a proposed re-location of a private right-of-way on the property.
“However, that reason was pretextual since it was an insignificant change and was not supported by the zoning regulations,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit charges the defendants with 24 violations.
Following the denial of the application for the high end condominium project, DePretis filed a proposal for a luxury alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, but complications surrounding the controversy led that project to fall through.
The two lawsuits filed by DePretis’s attorneys at the firm of Rome McGuigan have been merged and are scheduled for trial before the end of this year.
DePretis said the lawsuits are in pursuit of justice, and he is confident he will prevail in court.
“It can’t go on. What they did to us was totally illegal. There’s a lot of principle involved in this thing. These people can’t just form groups and put money together just because they have it and they don’t like what’s going on,” DePretis said.
But Bob and Margaret DePretis have paid a high price in pursuit of justice -- ironically, the two have lost their home trying to defend their right to develop their property.
The development plans and lawsuits caused the couple to fall behind on $330,000 in mortgage payments. On Saturday, June 20, the bank holding the mortgage bought back the house for $2.75 million. Later this summer, the couple will leave the house that Margaret DePretis inherited from her father 25 years ago, and move into a rental cottage.
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